Gender Politics in The Queen’s Gambit
Kiera Mann provides an interesting review into the series 'The Queen's Gambit', revealing where it falls short and where it may be redeemed.
Artwork Description: Clean beauty’ is a collage which refers to a standardised and regulated idea of beauty that has persisted throughout western popular culture and is still ever present in today’s ‘progressive’ society. There is an obvious double standard in the ways we view beauty in terms of gender. The perpetuation of idealistic beauty standards and over sexualisation of women in the media is demonstrative of ideas which still place women’s physical appearance as a marker of their worth. The black gloves in the image serve to represent a sort of enforced sexuality that is never an expression of the individual, but rather an expression of what is expected of the individual.
The Queen’s Gambit has taken Netflix by storm since it aired last month, and for good reason. If you’re one of the few people yet to watch, or should we say binge it, then this article is your sign.
Following Beth Harmon, a Kentucky born orphan in the 1950s, the show tracks her journey to becoming a national chess prodigy. Being set against the backdrop of the Cold War, and showing the interactions between American and the Soviet chess stars, the show was always going to have some interesting politics. But, overshadowing the Cold-War references are the colourful and provocative gender tropes tackled by the producers. Despite revolving around the heavily male-dominated world of competitive chess, it is the plethora of strong female figures that advance and facilitate the plot. In doing so, they draw attention to long-standing, and all-too-familiar gender tropes that are still prominent in today's world.
Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley, tackles alcohol dependence, a distant and arguably abusive husband, and a shattered dream of being a concert pianist. Her virtuosity is something she shares with no other; her love of classical music thus becomes a guilty pleasure. She is the product of an invisible and mundane domestic life, with seemingly no friends or extended family. She is stuck in an unhappy marriage with Mr Wheatley, a cold and heartless man who is the embodiment of the individualistic 'American Dream’: a white man who has dedicated his life to travelling the country for work, whatever that mysterious work may be. Despite this unhappy existence and her initially rocky relationship with Beth, Alma is eventually seen in a favourable light through her dedication to aiding Beth in the pursuit of her dream as an international chess player. She is a lonely woman who is a representation of the outwardly-happy, inwardly-depressed housewife of 1950s America; she has the house, the husband, and the car, yet still feels unfulfilled in her seemingly meaningless day-to-day existence.
It is unsurprising that as she passes through her teenage years, we see Beth herself begin to face some of these same demons. Maturing from an awkward schoolgirl into a sophisticated and chic young adult is not a smooth path for Beth. Her dependence on the tranquillising ‘green pills’ in her childhood orphanage safely plants the seed for her later drug and alcohol abuse. After errand-running for Alma in the local pharmacy, and becoming reconnected with the pills that played such a huge role in her young life, Beth succumbs to them once again. This growing dependence culminates in the months after the sudden death of Alma, where we see an on-screen depiction of Beth painfully mourning alone, in an unhealthy and upsetting way. These binges, unsurprisingly, threaten to ruin her chess career, something that could be taken as a reinforcement of the ever-present idea that women are biologically too emotional for important careers.
However, a closer look into Beth’s lonely reality as the sole woman in the world of competitive chess offers a far more sympathetic understanding of her actions. As her success grows, we watch Beth amass some wealth and splash out on all the things she longed for growing up. Despite this, her way of life is an isolated one, and these material goods do not bring Beth the happiness she once thought they would. She has pushed everyone who cared for her away, most notably her ex-rival turned situationship Harry Beltick, and is left with nothing other than her material items. It is also interesting that after embodying the ‘not like other girls’ trope throughout her childhood, Beth undergoes a transformation by which she conforms to prevailing beauty standards as soon as she has the financial means to do so. This conformity is an interesting choice by the show; it appears to stick to the narrative that to become noticeable, women must first become physically desirable. It’s Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries, except this time, it’s 2020.
The saviour of the show’s representation of female characters is Beth's childhood best friend, Jolene. After we see her struggle to get adopted as the only black girl in the orphanage, Jolene makes a surprise return when Beth is at her lowest, pulling her out of the darkness. Jolene breaks every on-screen stereotype she could have been subjected to as a woman of colour: she is independent, successful, and a kind and supportive friend to Beth. She also breaks down the societal norms of the time, being the only black woman at the law firm she works at and striving to become a qualified lawyer. Despite her limited role, a result of the fact that she never escaped the orphanage until she reached adulthood, Jolene’s character is a fan favourite, with many even calling for a spin-off series revolving around her future success. I think we can all agree that this would be an excellent and uplifting show, albeit in very different ways to Beth’s story. This is proof if proof were needed, that audiences respond to well-rounded, autonomous, female characters.
Despite this last-ditch effort to portray a more balanced depiction of the plight of women in the 1950s through Jolene, I think audiences expect more than this in 2020. It is disappointing to see a modern show with so much potential for a progressive tackling of gender politics revert to the classic trope that a woman’s beauty can solve all her problems. Whilst the style transformation of Beth is impressive, through presenting this exterior change as a solution for her wider life problems, it perpetuates the message to the young girls of today that it is not what’s on the inside, but what’s on the outside that counts.